Rice Seeks To Clarify Policy on Prisoners

Cruel, Inhuman Tactics By U.S. Personnel Barred Overseas and at Home

By Glenn Kessler and Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 8, 2005; Page A01

KIEV, Ukraine, Dec. 7 -- Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States prohibits all its personnel from using cruel or inhuman techniques in prisoner interrogations, whether inside or outside U.S. borders. Previous public statements by the Bush administration have asserted that the ban did not apply abroad.

U.S. obligations under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, which prohibits cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, extend as "a matter of policy" to "U.S. personnel wherever they are, whether they are in the United States or outside of the United States," Rice said here at a news conference with Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gestures while addressing media together with Romanian President Traian Basescu, right, in Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gestures while addressing media together with Romanian President Traian Basescu, right, in Bucharest, Romania, on Tuesday. (Vadim Ghirda - AP)

The remarks were her latest effort during a week-long European trip to convince skeptics that the United States is committed to fair and decent treatment of terrorism suspects. At every stop of her trip, she has faced reporters' questions about torture at a time of widespread outrage in Europe over reports that the CIA has operated secret prisons in East European countries.

In Washington, supporters of an anti-torture bill sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war, greeted her statement as a sign that the White House was abandoning claims that the measure could complicate the fight against international terrorism.

Rice's remarks are "an important and very welcome change from their previous position, which I believe has cost us dearly in the world and does not reflect our nation's laws or our values," Sen. Carl M. Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "I also believe that the administration's position on this matter up to now has endangered our troops, because others might point to our practices to justify their own."

Even after Rice made her remarks, administration aides turned aside suggestions that she was breaking new ground. In Washington, Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, told reporters that Rice was only expressing existing policy.

McClellan's comment appears to be based on a written answer that Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales gave in late October to a question posed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. In answer to Question 158, Gonzales wrote that the administration's policy is to abide by provisions barring cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment "even if such compliance is not legally required, regardless of whether the detainee in question is held in the United States or overseas."

Those words, buried in the document, passed largely unnoticed and the new policy was never publicly articulated until Rice spoke in Kiev on Wednesday.

The McCain bill, passed by the Senate, would put into law a ban on torture and lesser forms of abuse. Congressional aides said Wednesday that conferees were poised to accept the McCain language on detainees and that they expected the measure to pass easily in the House of Representatives.

The administration is "accepting reality" that Congress supports a broad ban on mistreatment of prisoners, one aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. Members of Congress in both parties have come to fear that opposing McCain's language could be seen as supporting torture, the aide said.

Critics of the administration have charged that it has played deceptive word games with descriptions of its interrogation policy. Rice's statement appeared to narrow the ambiguity and bar interrogation techniques that the CIA has been permitted to use in select cases, such as sexual humiliation and "waterboarding," in which the prisoner is made to believe he or she is drowning.

Still, analysts were trying to sort out its practical meaning Wednesday. "The administration has shown itself a number of times capable of changing course and speed in response to actual or feared legal developments, be it in the courts or in Congress," said Eugene Fidell, a Washington specialist on military law. "This may be another illustration of that tendency."

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